Chronic budget cuts undermine ability of Ontario ministries to fulfill environmental protection duties
Since the early 1990s, a series of reductions in the budgets of the two Ontario ministries that bear the main burdens for environmental protection have resulted in a gradual but steady erosion of funding, staffing and expertise within the ministries of Environment and of Natural Resources (MOE and MNR). Consequently, both ministries are faltering in their performance of core functions such as inspection, compliance, enforcement and monitoring, says Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), in a special report released April 24, titled Doing Less with Less.
Miller took the unusual step of releasing the report at Cambrian College in Sudbury-a locale well removed from Ontario's urban centres because, he said, "the problem I am addressing and the resulting consequences more profoundly impact the day-to-day lives of people outside the urban centre."
The report also marks a departure from the ECO's usual practice in that, rather than focusing on the current government, it holds all previous governments over the past 15 years responsible for the present state of affairs.
"At a time of unprecedented public concern for the health of the planet, Ontarians may find it hard to believe that these two ministries are today struggling with fewer resources than in the early 1990s, but that is unfortunately the case," Miller stated, adding, "These declines have occurred under governments formed by all three major political parties in Ontario."
MOE's and MNR's operating budgets have both declined significantly since 1992, in real inflation-adjusted terms. Currently, the two ministries' operating budgets together amount to just barely 1% of Ontario's total operating budget. MOE's and MNR's planned operating budget for 2006/2007 is about 0.32% and 0.73%, respectively, of the Ontario government's overall operating budget of the Ontario government. This stands in sharp contrast to the early 1990s, when MOE's and MNR's operating budgets had been as high as 0.63% and 1.15%, respectively, of the province's total operating budget. Miller pointed out that Alberta and British Columbia both allocate their environmental ministries a bigger share of their overall budgets.
MOE's operating budget decreased throughout most of the 1990s, hitting its lowest level in 1997/98 and 1998/99. Thereafter, says the report, MOE's operating budget began to recover, but much of the increase was dedicated to responding to drinking water protection following the Walkerton tragedy. After adjusting for inflation, the buying power of MOE's 2006/2007 operating budget is approximately 34% lower than it was in 1992/1993.
The decrease in MNR's operating budget between 1992/1993 and 2004/2005 was approximately 35%, expressed in inflation-adjusted terms. Despite recent new funding that was almost entirely transferred through to forestry companies to respond to a crisis in that industry, MNR's 2006/2007 operating budget remains approximately 18% lower than in 1992/1993.
While their budgets have shrunk, MOE's and MNR's mandates have steadily expanded over the same time period, says the report. Many new environmental laws have been passed requiring enforcement and environmental issues have become much more complex. Moreover, the regulated communities have grown in number as well, with many more facilities needing approvals and inspections.
As Miller noted, "The ministries have tried to cope through repeated restructuring and reprioritizing exercises to stretch resources ever more thinly, to download and offload some activities, and to discontinue others." These exercises have resulted in core activities being outsourced, specialists becoming generalists and experienced staff, including scientists, being cut.
Arguably, the various governments have simply been responding to the public's perceived priorities, and public attention has been diverted from what has been happening in the areas of environmental protection and natural resource management. If people knew what was really happening, or not happening, said Miller, they would have expressed other priorities.
The implications for the environment-as illustrated by numerous examples and case studies in the report-are real and wide-ranging. They include far too few regular inspections of facilities that discharge pollutants to air and water, chronic compliance problems at sand and gravel operations, neglected provincial parks, inadequate monitoring of wildlife and sport fisheries and weak oversight of municipal sewage infrastructure.
In preparing the report, the ECO scrutinized several core programs of MOE and MNR. Some of the findings are highlighted below.
MOE's inspection programs: MOE staff are able to inspect only about 2 to 4% of all regulated facilities per year, so many facilities may go decades without seeing an inspector. Targeted inspection sweeps by MOE have found extremely high rates of non-compliance across most sectors.
MOE's water well inspections: MOE is responsible for ensuring that standards are met for water well construction, disinfection and abandonment, among other things. Given the importance of groundwater to millions of Ontarians, the public would expect MOE to have a program to guard against improper well construction and inadvertent water contamination. As of early 2007, MOE does not have staff dedicated to investigating private drinking water well construction, repair or abandonment operations on a continuing basis.
MOE's approvals program: MOE receives approximately 8,000 applications for new or amended Certificates of Approval (C of As) each year, but has been able to process only 6,500 to 7,000 applications annually. There are frequent concerns raised by industry about delays in obtaining C of As for innovative or complex technologies. MOE is also struggling to cope with the widespread problem of outdated C of As that allow many facilities to operate under outdated conditions, no longer reflective of current environmental protection standards.
MOE's oversight of municipal sewage systems: MOE has acknowledged that outdated C of As for sewage treatment plants (STPs) are a systemic problem. The ministry does not require municipalities to enact sewer use bylaws, and has not verified whether adequate plans are in place to control combined sewer overflows in all of the municipalities with combined sewers. MOE has not released an up-to-date, comprehensive summary of STP performance data since 1993.
MNR's oversight of sand and gravel extraction: As the lead agency responsible for managing Ontario's aggregate resources MNR has acknowledged that it has been coping with limited and decreasing capacity for inspection and enforcement obligations. Some individual inspectors are responsible for as many as 600 aggregate sites-far more than one inspector can realistically oversee. The most recently published inventory of Ontario's aggregate resources dates back to 1992, and it appears that resources are not available to update it, though it is acknowledged to be a critical planning tool.
MNR's fish and wildlife monitoring programs: MNR conducts population inventories of less than 10% of Ontario's mammalian species, and there is evidence of limited capacity to monitor even high-priority species such as moose, black bear and white-tailed deer. MNR relies heavily on third parties for monitoring and assessment of bird populations and habitat, and has a very limited capacity to inventory and monitor sport fish species and habitats.
The ECO recommends that the Ontario government, in consultation with the ministries and the public, undertake a staged, strategic rebuilding of the MOE and MNR to ensure that they can fulfill their mandates. The province should develop planning, priority-setting and budgeting processes to ensure that the two ministries are adequately equipped to:
*know the overall state or health of Ontario's natural environment;
*know when environmental degradation or impairment is imminent;
*take action to prevent, mitigate or manage existing or imminent substantive degradation or impairment;
*set rules and procedures governing human activities that are sufficient to protect our natural heritage from degradation; and
*know where there is substantial non-compliance with rules and procedures, and take measures to achieve compliance.
Finally, the report calls for MOE and MNR to undertake a third-party evaluation of the adequacy and distribution of technical and scientific exppertise within their agencies.
The report, Doing Less with Less, may be viewed on the ECO Web site, www.eco.on.ca. More information is also available from Hayley Easto, at the Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 416/325-3371.